Democracy under attack. Picture credit: moneycontrol.com

Citizens in both countries should be deeply, deeply concerned about the future of free and fair elections.  About the protection of civil and political rights, including a free media. History teaches us that citizens of a democracy must be vigilant, always vigilant. As President Biden said last week: “I’m not saying this to alarm you. I’m saying this because you should be alarmed.”

Democracy is never permanent, never guaranteed. Now it is threatened around the world, including in my country, the United States, one of the oldest democracies. 

On January 6 this year, insurgents attacked the capital of the United States, and threatened political leaders.  People were injured. People were killed. These protestors refused to accept that President Biden won the November 2020 election, although in court case after court case, no proof was ever found to the contrary.

We have recently learnt how fraught those last weeks were during the presidential transition. Very alarming reports about Trump’s last days in office have just emerged. General Mark Milley, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Trump, was actually frightened that Trump would manufacture a crisis to justify a coup. In fact, General Milley said he was worried about another a “Reichstag moment”, when an arson attack on Germany’s parliamentary buildings was used as a pretext to establish Hitler’s Nazi dictatorship. The unprecedented attack on our capital was just such a moment.

President Biden, in a passionate defence of democracy last week, criticised the various state laws recently aimed at restricting and discouraging black Americans from voting. “We are facing,” he said, “the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. That’s not hyperbole — since the Civil War. The Confederates back then never breached the Capitol,” he continued,  “I’m not saying this to alarm you. I’m saying this because you should be alarmed.” And I am.

Here in Nigeria, in October 2020, young people launched historic protests against police brutality. Their #EndSARS protests were covered in media outlets around the world. The Nigeria military then moved brutally against these lawful protests, killing an unknown number of protestors. Fines against the traditional media were levied for even covering the protests. Social media exploded; around the world, Nigeria was roundly condemned for these attacks against the protestors and the media. In response, Twitter was banned on June 4 and a bill to “regulate social media” was only recently tabled in the Nigerian Senate.  

Are these two democracies in decline? Imperiled? How concerned should we be both about the United States and Nigeria, two of the world’s largest and most important democracies in a world littered with dictatorships?

The Nigerian press has been under attack in Nigeria for many years now. Attacks, arrests and harassment have increased significantly in the past few years. Reporters Without Borders has declared that Nigeria is one of the most dangerous and difficult countries for journalists in all of West Africa. Journalists are routinely “spied on, attacked, arbitrarily arrested or even killed.” As of 2021, Nigeria ranks near the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index ranking, declining five points from the 2020 ranking.

Are these two democracies in decline? Imperiled? How concerned should we be both about the United States and Nigeria, two of the world’s largest and most important democracies in a world littered with dictatorships? 

In How Democracies Die, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt say, “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals–but of elected leaders–presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany. More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.” In a word, they die slowly.

The authors describe four indicators of authoritarian behaviour that are alarm bells for democracies under threat.

The first is “a “rejection of (or a weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.”  Examples of this include “refusing to accept credible election results, cancelling elections, banning certain organizations, restricting civil or political rights.”

The fourth indicator of a democracy in decline is “supporting the curtailment of civil liberties of opponents, including the media,” and “establishing laws against criticising the government or civil and political organizations.”

The second is denying the legitimacy of political opponents, “describing rivals as subversive or threatening, and working to criminalize their opponents.”

The third critical element is “tolerating or encouraging violence, having ties to paramilitary forces or gangs, encouraging mob attacks on their opponents, and refusing to condemn violence.”

The fourth indicator of a democracy in decline is “supporting the curtailment of civil liberties of opponents, including the media,” and “establishing laws against criticizing the government or civil and political organizations.”

Using these criteria, it is clear that democracy is under attack in the United States. Is it under attack here in Nigeria, too?

Citizens in both countries should be deeply, deeply concerned about the future of free and fair elections.  About the protection of civil and political rights, including a free media. History teaches us that citizens of a democracy must be vigilant, always vigilant. As President Biden said last week: “I’m not saying this to alarm you. I’m saying this because you should be alarmed.”

Margee Ensign (PhD), the President of the American University of Nigeria, was until recently President of Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA.

 

 

 

 

 

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